Sadiq Khan: Labour can only change Londoners' lives by winning

Labour’s candidate remains the favourite in London’s mayoral race despite Tory attacks and gripes from his party’s left

If only three-year-olds had the vote, Sadiq Khan would probably have this election sewn up by now. It is a cold and soggy morning in north London, and Labour’s mayoral candidate is making a flying visit to a nursery to talk about expanding childcare access and helping nursery staff access affordable housing.

It is clear, however, that the Tooting MP is every bit as comfortable squatting at a table covered in foam and fishing out plastic sharks for the entertainment of toddlers. He is known in his family as the “baby whisperer”, he explains to the staff, and with two teenage daughters and 22 nieces and nephews, he has had plenty of opportunity for practice.

By the time he leaves, after 25 minutes, Khan has built a block tower, played a game with builders’ hats, sung a burst of the ubiquitous Disney anthem Let It Go and knows the name of almost every child in the room. Politicians may be professional charmers, but you will rarely see a more effective lesson in how to win round a difficult crowd.

The challenge for Khan, of course, will be whether he will be able to repeat this trick with London’s voters on 5 May. The signs, for now, would seem to be encouraging. The surprise winner of Labour’s selection race in the summer, he pulled ahead of his main rival, Conservative Zac Goldsmith, in the polls late last year and has stayed there ever since.

With less than three weeks to go until the vote, a poll at the beginning of April for LBC and ITV News had Khan a full 10 points ahead of Goldsmith, a lead that has been only widening. He enters the final weeks of the campaign as the clear favourite to follow Boris Johnson into City Hall. Not that anyone is daft enough to trust polls any more.

May’s mayoral election may be notable for one key reason: for the first time since the post was inaugurated 16 years ago, neither major party is fielding a candidate who already had widespread name recognition among the general public. It has meant that Khan – who few tipped to win the nomination – has had to introduce himself to voters as well as seek to gain their votes, even as his opponents try to fill the void with their own representation.

In this, the Tories have not been shy. He is a “caricature machine politician”, Goldsmith has claimed, but also the proponent of “divisive and radical politics”. He was dismissed as a “Labour lackey” by the defence minister, Michael Fallon, but also called “unfit” to be mayor because he has spoken in the past alongside “extremists”.

Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan
The Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan going head to head in a London mayoral debate. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

If his Tory attack lines are confused, so are many in Labour. Khan was one of those who nominated Jeremy Corbyn for the party leadership, and though he was open that he intended to back Andy Burnham, his own selection as mayoral candidate was seen by many as part of the same leftwing groundswell. Since being selected, however, he has pointedly distanced himself from Corbyn and many of his policies. (Corbyn’s team, in turn, listed him among MPs “hostile” to the leadership, according to the list leaked to the Times last month.)

Apart from a joint appearance at a living wage event at Arsenal’s Emirates stadium in November, the two men have not been photographed together. Questions about their plans to campaign together in coming weeks are met with non-committal mutters about how busy the party leader will find himself elsewhere.

If Labour’s candidate does not fit easily into a political box, one reason is that modern politicians, for the most part, don’t look like Sadiq Khan. The 45-year-old is one of eight children – seven brothers and a sister – of a British-Pakistani bus driver and seamstress, and grew up in a packed council house on an estate in the area he now represents in parliament. He slept in a bunk bed in his parents’ home until, aged 24, he left to get married to another solicitor, Saadiya Ahmed.

“I’ve been blessed throughout my life with people to encourage me, mentor and support me,” says Khan over a snatched coffee in a noisy north London cafe. “I’m not going to pretend that there haven’t been times when I thought there would be a tap on my shoulder saying, listen mate, there’s been a mistake, you aren’t really a lawyer, you don’t run this firm. But when you meet people who are in positions of power who have had slightly more privileged backgrounds, you realise – they ain’t much better than we are. So that gives you confidence.”

Studying law gave Khan an entry into business and a burgeoning profile. He was taken on as a trainee by the prominent human rights lawyer Louise Christian; three years later, at 27, he became a partner and the firm was renamed Christian Khan. He chaired the human rights group Liberty for three years, and represented figures including the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan, offering some of the ammunition for those seeking today to associate him with extremism – which he has repeatedly and lengthily refuted. He walked out of the firm when the Labour candidacy of his local seat in Tooting became available in 2004, and was elected to parliament the following year.

The young MP became, very quickly, someone to watch. The Spectator named him “newcomer of the year” and he was appointed a junior communities minister by Gordon Brown in 2008, later becoming the first Muslim minister to attend cabinet as a junior transport minister. It wasn’t just running Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign in 2010 that led many to see him as a highly effective political operator – hardworking, self-confident, and certainly ambitious.

Khan’s pitch – and if he repeats it ad infinitum, you can perhaps indulge him – is that his story is (or should be) London’s story. In this, it is the good fortune of the council estate kid to find himself up against a billionaire’s son and former non-dom. “The contrast between Zac’s life story and Sadiq’s is very striking if you are a non-political person in London,” says Jim Fitzpatrick, a former chair of the London Labour party and the highly experienced MP for Poplar and Limehouse. “Sadiq’s life as a bus driver’s son from a council estate made good is much more appealing and attractive and chimes with the experience of ordinary Londoners. I think it gives him a head-start.”

It is evident on the doorsteps during a chilly canvassing session on a Hackney housing estate, where Khan speaks with easy empathy with a woman who is raising four children in her two-bed flat, and an older man alarmed by the number of cyclists outside his window. He breaks into Urdu to ask a hesitant older woman if she will take some literature and vote for him on 5 May.

“He really understands the problems facing London, whether it’s housing or transport, and he matches that with a real understanding of inequality,” says Oona King, the Labour peer and former London MP who unsuccessfully ran for the party’s mayoral nomination in 2012 and was an early supporter of Khan’s selection (“which, incidentally, I didn’t think he was going to win”) alongside, notably, Ken Livingstone.

He promises an ambitious housing policy to greatly increase new and affordable homes, and has pledged to freeze fares on buses and the tube for four years, “sweating” the resources of Transport for London which, despite its protests, he insists it can well afford. But he has also vowed to be “the most pro-business mayor of London yet” and “make engagement with industry – from small independents and startups to global corporations – a key part of decision-making at City Hall”.

This approach to business has won him approval in unlikely quarters, including the Economist, the Telegraph and the Spectator, which praised his “organisation, energy and enthusiasm”. But it has disconcerted some on the Labour left who might have expected they were getting a slightly different candidate.

“He ran from the left and then pulled very hard to the right, and that is annoying for a lot of people,” says one senior figure in the party’s emerging left flank. “Our people are incredibly keen to get a Labour mayor, they understand how important it is and are putting in a lot of work to do so.

Sadiq Khan speaking on behalf of the Nation of Islam in 2001
Sadiq Khan speaking on behalf of the Nation of Islam in 2001. Those seeking to associate Khan with extremism have focused on his time as a human rights lawyer. Photograph: Tim Boyle/Getty Images

“But clearly, when someone says how great it is that there are so many billionaires in London, [Khan said he “welcomed” London’s 140 billionaires and 400,000 millionaires] it doesn’t inspire a great number of social justice activists.” On the party’s centre right, meanwhile, there are plenty who have yet to forgive him for nominating Corbyn.

This is what Khan’s critics consider their most fertile line of attack – that his position can be fluid depending on his audience. In a BBC interview earlier this month, Goldsmith repeated his charge that Khan is “fundamentally unprincipled” because of what he characterised as his opponent’s “flip-flopping” and “naked opportunism”. Khan was criticised by human rights campaigners including Shami Chakrabarti when he voted against 90-day pre-trial detention in 2005, then in favour of 42 days three years later when he was a Labour whip. As a transport minister he backed Heathrow expansion; he now opposes it in favour of Gatwick.

Khan, who trained as a boxer in his youth, parries the charges like a welterweight bouncing easily on his toes. On Heathrow, he says, he was convinced by arguments over noise but mostly air quality (Khan has himself been diagnosed with adult onset asthma, he reveals). “Our air in London is a killer, makes you sick and is illegal. In those circumstances, the idea of a new runway at Heathrow doesn’t make sense to me.” He is quite happy to admit that, had he found himself a minister in a Miliband government, he might currently be defending a different position.

He moved to 42 days’ detention, meanwhile, because it was the best achieveable compromise, he says. “And that’s what politics is – it’s trying to win a vote. You have to compromise when it comes to a decision you care about, because the alternative is being a politician with a megaphone who doesn’t achieve anything.”

It is a mantra he will certainly be repeating in the coming weeks. Before setting out to knock on Hackney doors, Khan gathers the 40 or so Labour activists for a brief pep talk. “Never forget that we can only change people’s lives by winning. Gordon Brown once said ‘one day in power is better than 5,000 in opposition, because you can only do things when you win’.”


Esther Addley

The GuardianTramp

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